At last week’s Paris conference on Iraq — attended by Russia, China, Japan, the European Union and the Arab League, among others — the US managed to cobble together diplomatic support for its plan for military (read aerial) action against the Islamic State (IS). But no mention was made of such action in IS havens in Syria, which US President Barack Obama’s strategy emphasises.
Even the coalition it has built is dodgy. Iran and Syria were kept out at the behest of the US. But Russia has made it clear that it considers military action without Iran’s cooperation and coordination with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to be illegal and dangerous. The British House of Commons opposes military action. Further, Turkey, a Nato member, has refused to close its borders, allowing money and supplies to reach Syrian opposition groups. Turkish border towns like Antakya, Kisil and Antalya have become hubs for foreign fighters. The largely Sunni Arab potentates prevaricate, believing that military action will weaken their IS tafkiri proxies and inevitably strengthen Syria.
The military action against the IS in Iraq is the latest of the US’s flawed strategies since the Iraq invasion in 2003. The advent of a democratic leadership there has seemingly made no difference. After the crises in Afghanistan and Libya, we now have Syria and the IS. After dithering on military action, Obama will authorise air strikes against the IS in its safe havens in Syria. That is a major change from keeping the IS in play to build pressure on the then Iraq prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to quit, a delay that ended up strengthening the IS with major field victories in Iraq and Syria.
By any metric of credibility and effectiveness, the US strategy looks as though it will exacerbate the dangerous situation in the Middle East rather than provide a resolution to the crisis. It is flawed in its goal, manner of execution, choice of partners, targets and outcome. At its root, the IS represents a fanatical and violent dimension of a major religion. It is not possible to “degrade and ultimately destroy” a stream of thought by military means; indeed, it might be granted a fresh lease of life. The persistence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was ruthlessly hunted by Arab autocrats three decades ago, is a case in point.
The IS, one of the richest and most ruthless terrorist organisations, brings together nearly 35 Salafist groups. Its jihadi network is valued at $2 billion and rising on stolen oil revenues, looted treasuries and plunder from the sale of lifted antiquities in Iraq and Syria. It controls 35 per cent of Syrian territory, while other similar groups control another 20 per cent. The moderate groups, which the US and the West want to back, control under five per cent of the territory. All these groups — 1,500 at last count — are also Islamists, sectarian and anti-democratic. It hardly serves the US to be enmeshed in an intra-Islamic struggle that Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, says will continue for a decade.
The strategy is also flawed on two significant counts in not seeking to coordinate with the Syrian government and totally bypassing the UN and the Security Council. Under these circumstances, any action by the US and the Western powers will be an illegal invasion of a sovereign country. Predictably, the Assad regime has made this assertion, which it will reverse, of course, if the US makes common cause with it. But the US desists because it does not wish to strengthen Assad and adversely impact Israel’s security.
For the US, cooperation with Syrian intelligence is necessary to destroy the IS. Even though both target the same enemy for the same reason, the US does not accept that the Assad regime is the lesser of two evils. This position amounts to saying it is fine for the US to go after the IS in Syria but not for the Syrian government, whose citizens it includes.
The US’s deliberate bypassing of the UNSC in building the international coalition — of mostly the “unwilling” — says enough about the status of that body. Important Nato members like the UK are not on board, while others, like Germany, are evaluating the blowback of fighting the IS. The US has emasculated the UNSC by not seeking a UN mandate even if only for form’s sake, given the inevitability of a Russian or a Chinese veto. The US action has opened the way for Russia to act in a similar manner in Crimea and Ukraine. It gives China, which has a number of theatres of overt tension on its periphery, the freedom to follow suit.
At the Paris meeting, the Arab League backed the move to expand airstrikes to Syria. The Saudis appeared to have little choice and agreed to provide training bases and funds. It was the best way to deflect attention from the Saudi Wahhabism that spawned the IS. But there is no guarantee that this will play out as the US desires because these are, after all, the same Saudis who allegedly funded the same IS to fight Shias in Iraq and Syria and bring down the Assad regime.
Finally, the US’s public image continues to suffer. The speculation that the IS and its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were created by the West to fight Shias has taken root. It is no surprise then that even the coalition of the unwilling on Syria finds no traction, as it seems that each country is looking out only for itself.
The IS does need to be combatted. But we need is international action with wide consultations among countries with composite and diverse populations that are most at risk from the group’s ideology. That will ensure strategies are not put in place based on the narrow divisions in play in West Asia.
The writer, a former Indian ambassador to Syria and Turkey, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and public affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington, US
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